Is Creating Viral Content Easier Than You Think?

There’s no magic formula to making something go viral, but these simple bits of advice could help increase your odds.
June 12, 2013

“How do I make sure my content goes viral?”

I am asked this question all the time and could answer in what would be one of the shortest posts ever: You can’t.

Part of the magic and the mystery of viral content is that it emerges from nowhere—how many of us had heard of Psy before Gangnam Style?—and then succeeds in charming us, crossing us or otherwise capturing our attention. While I can’t offer a specific formula for businesses and brand marketers to get your campaign out there, I can offer a few useful bits of advice.

A Brief History of Sharing

The first has to do with understanding just what we mean when we talk about something going viral. When we say something is viral, we don’t necessarily mean that it has a lot of views. Every video by Rihanna gets tens of millions of hits, but very few people, if any, tune in simply because a friend forwarded it to them. They watch Rihanna videos because they like Rihanna. They would be doing the same thing even if the Internet had never gone social.

So why do people choose to share some things online? The answer predates the Internet. We share content with our friends because we like them and we want them to experience the same things as us. Most residents of East Germany didn’t even have a phone, let alone a computer-mediated social network, in the late '80s. But relying solely on word of mouth, they organized a series of peaceful demonstrations that led to the collapse of the Communist Party and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Their message went viral because it mattered to people. It resonated with them and moved them to action.

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When someone shares your content or your message, they do it for their peers—not you. At our recent Meetup on viral marketing, Jonathan Perelman put it succinctly: “I don’t share your brand because I like your brand. I share your brand because I like my friends.”

What Goes Viral

Now that we know the “why” behind viral, let’s talk about the “what.” Any piece of content—a brand commercial, a funny ad for a deodorant company, a message from a political candidate—must evoke an emotion that arouses. In his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger explains that the key to sharing is in the nature of emotion it provokes. Awe gets shared more than contentment. Anger is more viral than sadness.

This leads me to a second counterintuitive thought: The smaller and more focused your target audience is, the more likely it is that the piece will gain traction. Remember, the decision to share has less to do with how much fans like what we’re sharing and more to do with how much we like our friends. We’re more likely to share stuff that suits our common interests, and interests vary from group to group, and are usually pretty narrow.

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Say my friends and I are all huge Star Wars nerds. And suppose I stumble upon some video of a comedian riffing on some Star Wars minutia. Obviously, I’m going to send it to my buddies. But the cycle doesn’t end there. The video gets sent from one small circle of enthusiasts to another—each ripple larger than the last. 

It’s the cheerleader theory of media: Create something for a specific audience that is really passionate about it, and word will get out beyond the initial circles. Make something with the intention of pleasing the entire world, and you’re likely to get ignored.

That leads me to my last piece of advice: Ignore everything I’ve just told you and make something that makes you proud.

If you crack up or tear up every time you see your video, others will too. If you can’t wait to share something with everyone you know, others will love it. Measuring success shouldn’t be benchmarked against viral videos of years past. It should be determined by the quality and originality of your content. It’s that simple. 

Read more articles on going viral.

Photo: Getty Images